On October 17 – 18, 2016, we were invited to participate in International Alert‘s conference on Engaging Overseas Sri Lankans: Promoting Responsible Investment and Technical Assistance.
The two-day conference saw around 300 participants attend to discuss and understand how the different diasporas originating from Sri Lanka can be engaged and what needs to be done by the Government of Sri Lanka and other stakeholders to facilitate such engagement. The conference itself was an outcome of a much broader stakeholder consultations and research that culminated in the release of The Roadmap for Engaging Overseas Sri Lankans in July 2016.
I have been engaging in Sri Lanka for more than a decade. I first returned as a university student to Sri Lanka in 2003 during the ceasefire to volunteer in the North and East. I spent some time in Kilinochchi teaching English and IT to children and young adults. In another return to the North in 2014, I was in Vavuniya meeting with families of former LTTE combatants. After one such meeting, the woman I was talking to asked me out of the blue, “Aren’t you Kumaran?”
The question left me stunned. It turned out that this woman was someone I had taught English on my first return more than 10 years ago. I had not recognized her. In the intervening decade, this person’s life had not significantly improved and had, in fact, gotten worse in many ways. That’s when I realized that something different needed to be done.
With that in mind, I got a group of friends together to setup the comdu.it pilot network to facilitate opportunities for young Canadians of Sri Lankan heritage to transfer their technical expertise to advance long-term sustainable development of rural, remote, and war-impacted communities in Sri Lanka.
I feel the current push for a singular national narrative comes, in many ways, from a place of insecurity and fear of divergent opinions and different ways of understanding what it means to be Sri Lankan. I strongly feel long-lasting inclusivity can only be built on a foundation of solidarity.
Solidarity means being able to have open and honest conversations with each other about what is going on in the country. This includes being able to discuss the very real changes that need to happen in the former war zones such as the return of illegally expropriated lands, demilitarization, due process for political detainees, need for more devolution of powers to provincial councils, and so on.
We need to remain vigilant on this because failure to do so will mean more space being taken up by extremist elements on all sides in Sri Lanka and abroad, and we cannot allow for that to happen again.